The electoral system is broken.
One way to restore a semblance of democracy is Rank Choice Voting (RCV). RCV gives voters more power because we can rank candidates by order of preference free from narrow binary choices.
And, RCV insures that the winner has an actual majority of votes not just a plurality. Having more votes than the other candidate, is a very low bar indeed. Contrary to the convention wisdom that “majority rules” US elections are not based on majorities but pluralities.
Majority Does Not Rule
RCV would help correct one of the most pathetic shortcomings of the electoral system: presidents and most other politicians are elected by numerical minorities. RCV would make majority rules the standard and minority rules the exception. As reported in the Christian Science Monitor:
“If there is no one with an outright majority – more than 50% of the vote – the votes are recounted, with a twist. The candidate with the least votes from the previous round is eliminated, and the ballots with that candidate as No. 1 have their No. 2 slot counted instead. This pattern continues until there is a winner with an outright majority.”
Just since WWII, presidents such as Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, Bill Clinton (twice) all failed to win a majority of those voting. Even worse, GW Bush and Trump won without even getting more votes than their opponents thanks to the anti-democratic Electoral College.
For example, in 2016 Hillary Clinton won 48% of the vote, while Trump won 46% but neither won a majority. Factor in the 100 million eligible voters that do not vote and both Clinton and Trump got a meager 27%, more or less, of total eligible voters.
RCV would weaken party-line discipline and blind obedience. Winning over the second rank vote would become central to victory. Candidates would be more inclined to discuss policy and offer positive programs. Negative campaigning would be tempered for fear of alienating those key second rank voters. This matters because negative campaigning is an important factor feeding voter disgust and suppressing voter turnout. Millions chose not to pay the moral and psychological costs of getting involved with the vacuous, mudslinging circus that passes as electioneering in the US.
Fear and the Accommodation to Power
RCV would lower the level of fear. That is incredibly important since fear is the main form of social control in the US. All those scary arguments: the lesser of two evils, the spoiler, wasted votes, it’s not the right time, the corporate privilege arguments — all disabled by RCV.
It’s not a coincidence that lesser of two evil voting first became a regular part of electoral politics in the 1950s and 60s. Just as the war machine gutted the old Constitution, lesser of two evil voting became common.
What a price we all paid for the Cold War: the old constitution was destroyed by the new all-powerful Imperial Presidency. Lesser of two evils replaced the idea of representation as the theory and practice of voting.
This transition to imperial politics was accomplished by the fear campaign of Cold War anti-communism. We have been living on borrowed time ever since. Trump is the wake up call: the empire destroyed democracy, all presidents are tyrants and we are not free.
From this historical perspective we can see that lesser of two evil voting was a dysfunctional adaptation to the system. Just as democracy died, the political culture legitimized the surrender of the basic principle of representative democracy: that people should vote for parties and candidates that actually represent their interests and values. As the government became unable and unwilling to represent the people, the people were told to settle for the least worst enemy and give up all claims to actually being represented.
Lesser of two evils voting was an accommodation to power displacing other forms of political struggle that challenged power such as the civil rights/black power movement, the anti-war movement, feminism, gay liberation or the workers movements of the 1930s.
There is no sadder comment on the strategic poverty of the left than the fact that lesser of two evil voting has been the main tactic used by progressives for 70 years. How is that working out? And, this accommodation to the system was led by left icons such as Noam Chomsky. Decade after decade, Chomsky has repeated the ruling class mantra that there is no alternative — no time and no conditions under which the working-class can have an independent voice in electoral politics. The ultimate meaning of lesser of two evil voting is now clear: we must remain forever under the tutelage of the corporate parties.
I call on Chomsky and his followers to prove that they are not just adapting to the system by putting as much energy and urgency into electoral reforms like RCV as they put into the repeated calls for the Green Party to stand down. Stand for electoral reform and we are on the path to standing together. A new realignment is possible but not without recognizing that the two-party system splits progressives who otherwise have broad areas of agreement.
But perhaps most important of all, RCV could establish the minor parties without which no meaningful negotiations can occur.
Without a third or four force there is simply no leverage, no alternative, no credible threat of exit and no real negotiations with party bosses. Politically savvy reformers inside the Democratic Party will seize the opportunity to support RCV because it enables them to negotiate reforms. In contrast, the main current of the pro-Biden left is so scared of Trump they have abandoned all hope of moving Biden toward majority supported policies like health care or the Green New Deal. They settle for beating the vulgar frontal fascism of Trump with the softer less obvious institutional fascism of Biden.
The Maine Chance
The people of Maine challenged power. In 2016 they used a referendum to decide how they wanted to elect representatives rather than letting the politician decide how the people would vote. They fought back and survived legal challenges led by Republicans.
San Francisco, Corvallis and Minneapolis use RCV and New York City is on track for 2021. California was poised to bust the campaign for RCV wide open but when the California Legislature passed RCV twice, two liberal Governors, Gavin Newsome and Jerry Brown, vetoed it — proving once again that the Democratic machine is against democracy. But it’s worth noting that Wyoming is using RCV for their primaries and other state Democratic parties are considering it.
This year RCV is on the ballot in Alaska and Massachusetts in November.
Anyone interest in democracy should pay close attention to the campaign of Lisa Savage in Maine.
Lisa Savage started as a Green and still has the the Green platform even though backward state laws forced her to run as an independent. But with access to debates and media, Savage is running the strongest Green-style campaign for the Senate in history.
It is the first time for RVC so while we can expect the old political culture will continue to shape thinking and the old machine will continue to marginalize rivals — we will still get a truer idea of what Green candidates can do.
Unfortunately, Planned Parenthood — with its long track record of opposing universal health care and supporting Democrats — gives us a sorry example of how the old culture and the old machine will continue to squelch democracy. According to Lisa Savage:
“Planned Parenthood should be ashamed of themselves for lying to Maine voters. Put a Maine address into their Voter Guide and you’ll find no mention of my presence in a ranked choice voting race as a strong advocate for reproductive rights and health care. Yup, I’m just invisible so they can promote the Democrat and bash the Republican. I know RCV has a lot of enemies, but I didn’t expect PP to be one of them. Once orgs become beholden to one of the corporate parties, their actual advocacy on behalf of voters goes down the drain.”
To engage electoral work without fighting for electoral reform is more than hypocrisy — it’s a trap. We cannot win in a system so utterly rigged. We can start by recognizing that the US has the most dysfunction system of all so-called “western democracies.” We cannot blame the Russians for that. Even if the Green Party agreed to commit political suicide every four years that sacrifice would not even come close to fixing it. Only real reform can do that.
- The Election Integrity Project based at Harvard, (not to be confused with the ruling class formation the Transition Integrity Project) ranks the US last among “Western Democracies.”
Ranked choice voting is good for something like a presidential vote, where you are electing one person. And no matter what, it’s better than what Americans have. But for legislatures it is in my opinion not the best option. When you’re voting for a whole lot of people and they’re grouped together as parties, you have the opportunity to get a proportional result, where the seats directly reflect the percentage of votes favouring the different parties.
Ranked Choice isn’t proportional, and it tends to be biased in favour of middle-of-the-road candidates that nobody really hates. So for instance, in Canada we tend to have four parties these days–Conservatives on the right acting like Republicans, NDP on the left who are vaguely Bernie Sanders-ish, Liberals in the middle acting a bit like not-as-right-wing Democrats, and Greens being green but unable to make up their mind if they are otherwise left-ish or centrist. So here’s the thing: If a Conservative candidate gets dropped from the ballot, the Conservative voters’ second choices are not going to be a bunch of socialists; they’re going to hold their nose and have their second choice be Liberal. If NDP or Green candidates get dropped off the ballot, the NDP and Green voters would mostly slit their wrists before making a Conservative their second choice, so their votes would go to the Liberals (or each other, but then the Liberals). This wouldn’t happen in every seat; in some maybe Liberals would drop off first, but it would happen in many. So you’d end up with a lot of majority Liberal governments, with nobody else getting much of a look in, even if the first-choice votes were fairly evenly distributed. So for legislatures I prefer actual proportional representation systems, like an MMP.
Ranked Choice is still good for presidential elections though, and also VERY good for referenda–instead of being presented with one problematic solution to an important problem and having to vote yes or no, having a group of options and a Ranked Choice ballot would be far better.
Thanks for all that info. Yes, its not a magic wand and proportional representaion is the goal. Its a start and not much more but we are so strangled here by the corporate parties it may be a way to influece debate and maybe policy.
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I love that a green has a fair chance. We’ll be able to see how many voters prefer the real GND to whatever the Dems are serving. Ranked Choice Voting can also be used for proportional representation (the wonk name for it is single transferrable vote). Changing the districts to be multi-seat is the next step. If there are three seats – they’d go to a D and R and they third seat would be truly competitive. We’ll be able to get more independents and minor party voices at the table when policy is being made.
Yes, thanks. RCV is just a first step toward proportional representation. The independent parties can think more clearly since they don’t owe anything to corporate power. WE need those great ideaslike the REAL GND at the table.
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Rich, were you at the December Colorado SoS Alternative Voting Method Stakeholder Group Public Meeting (online and including RCV)?
No, I was unaware of it. Sounds like a good project.